When I was in my early teens it seemed like only me and two similarly awkward friends liked The Cure. Forever dismissed as “goths” and derided simply for the size of their hair and apparent miserablism of Robert Smith’s lyrics, we knew that they were far more than just a band. In the early 90s, roundabout the time I saw a packed stadium concert for their Wish album, I realised their influence was becoming more and more apparent: not only musically and lyrically, but how expressing emotions like love, anger and fear in metres usually associated with hyperbole and cliché could be carried off reverentially and imaginatively. Now the unique sound and imagery of Robert Smith’s (and Simon Gallup’s) oeuvre are widely recognised – NME, Brit Awards and the rest of them have given out their gongs of belated “lifetime achievement” approval. What does this journey from freakshow to main attraction mean?
I used to think I alone experienced the rapture of the opening drones of Plainsong, or could hear the music between the layers of instrumentation in Lament; Simon Gallup’s pulsing basslines seemed to be singularly tailored to reverberate in my gut – and the relentless monotony of Boris Williams’s drums on Disintegration (and that’s a live recording – the man is a human drum machine!) seemed to make only my spine tingle. I spoke to more and more people over the years: I discovered that other people could hear those ghost notes, interpreted Smith’s whispers and croaks the same way, and who had more than one tear in their eyes at the end of Faith. Now, some 30 years later I realise that this ability of music to really move us – and to which we relate our most fundamental experiences – is universal. It’s not me that has superhuman sensitivities, nor The Cure’s music that’s anything particularly unique. We all seek emotional earthquakes: Christian suburbanites, graduates, teenage dirtbags and pin stripe suits together.
Which sets the scene for my thoughts about Sebastian Faulk’s book Another Life. It’s one of five loosely connected chapters, about a folk musician in North America from the late 60s to late 90s. Her talent is supposedly singular, her audience grows from tiny folk gigs to sell-out crowds after her discovery by the narrator and his co-producer. The narrator’s engagement with her music is tied up of course in his attraction to her (and of course, she’s beautiful), and vice versa. “We love you”, cry the audience at her farewell gig (much like the lovestruck cries of “ROBERRRRRRT” from the young women on every single live recording of The Cure). But talent, and this entwining of soul and song, are not singular and rare, and neither should they be – we trick ourselves into thinking we alone are sufficiently sensitive to hear those hidden notes (spoiler: they don’t actually exist). Music is universal; the solidarity we feel when singing our lungs out on football terraces is very real and powerful stuff.
Why this rarefication of what should be a universalising force for human solidarity? Money changes everything, of course. Unit sales, mainly: tickets, downloads, merch, followers and clicks. But more than that: our drive for narrative with heroes rather than faceless armies (cf. Kahneman and Taleb, if you don’t believe me). Smith and Gallup are certainly two of my heroes – but I’m sure even their egos acknowledge the effort of countless engineers, producers, marketers and roadies in their success. Music going mainstream isn’t redeeming more souls: it’s making more money.
The power of ideas to take hold of collective consciousness rests in no small part upon their novelty, and the networks of their proponents, as well as their utility. In art, what part does ability play? Music conservatoires produce dozens of supremely gifted musicians each year, but which of them has the X Factor? There seems little correlation with ability. Difference from what went before, and the creation of a narrative that can shift units seem to have a far more significant role. Is there that much difference between the romanticism of, say, Lord Byron’s poetry, and The Figurehead?
I’m not saying talent doesn’t exist. There’s a definite arc in The Cure’s output from 1978, dropping off sharply after 1991 when Smith and Gallup hit their mid 30s – the same can be said of athletes and mathematicians. Creativity is exhausting, and those rare talents usually have stories that explain their early hunger: once success sates them, the creativity seems to dry up along with it. Once we’ve been through the trauma of love and loss, who wants to go through all that again without taking out some form of insurance? I’m not trying to explain why some artists make it to the bigtime. I’m simply saying that music is over-rated. We are not alone in our solitary prayers to the heroes of popular culture – how else are they popular? Rather we should stop the hero reverence and give each other more credit in our ability to relate to each other, and to simple cultural pleasures – which is all music (and art, and drama, and stories) is. The difference is that the need to sell tickets and books has reduced the universalities of culture to individual transactions. Sing out loud, and sing together instead.